Def India, which stands for Digital Empowerment Foundation India, is a nonprofit organization, founded in 2002, working for the education and use of information technology and digital communications in India mainly, but also in other parts of Asia. Def India develops digital platforms for the masses, especially in deprived and poor areas with the aim of designing technological solutions that meet the needs of the population and allow the inclusion of different social groups and ethno-linguistic and religious minorities.
The organization’s founder, Osama Manznar is a very special character in contemporary India: a writer, researcher, journalist for some of the major newspapers of the continent; as a 2.0 entrepreneur, he decided to concentrate on bringing technology to the development of its country. Through the use of Information Technology (IT) and digital media, his organization provides support to strengthen both the economic life and the knowledge of those people who normally live on the edge of thought and economic information. Maznar contributes to the development of local projects supporting the initiatives of institutions, both public and private, and non-profit associations.
Def India works with organizations such as ISAP (Indian Society of Agriculture Professionals, New Delhi), Digital Partners (Seattle, U.S.), World Summit Award (Salzburg, Austria), British Council (New Delhi), The Hoot (New Delhi), CDAC (New Delhi / Pune), Development Gateway Foundation, SEWAA (Dehradun), Bytes for All (Internet), OneWorld South Asia (New Delhi), Mahiti (Bangalore), International Center of New Media (Salzburg, Austria), European Academy of Digital Media, Arekibo Communications (Ireland), Information for Development (i4d, New Delhi), TeNet (IIT Madras, Chennai) and many others.
The experience of Def India shows how technological education can contribute substantially to the cultural and economic development of areas where educational projects using information technology are realized. Thus, it fits into a complex picture where the use of ICT as a mean of livelihood, education, generation of employment, entertainment, health, environmental protection, sustainable development, business and trade is steadily increasing. But this exponential use does not match an effective and democratic access to media and contents. ICT is increasingly being used but also the “digital gap” between literate and illiterate people in the field of technology is growing. India fits well into this dichotomy between growth in the use of ICT and the technology gap.
The projects promoted are very different from one another but the aim of all of them is to bridge the gap between people, information technology and digital communication due to linguistic and technical illiteracy. The goal is to make ICT more accessible to the social groups normally excluded, to inspire and enrich the language and techniques with new approaches. More and more people are becoming owners of computers and digital tools, aware and conscious of the need for and usefulness of ICT, designers themselves are becoming aware and conscious of their importance in order to achieve their goals. The areas of interest are culture, education, agriculture, administration, inclusion of gender and social inclusion, entrepreneurship.
Among the ways and means to fill gaps in terms of content, information and awareness, technological gap, there are workshops for the creation of radio communities, projects for the promotion from the grass-roots of local communities through the creation of portals (like Local Portal - http://www.localareaportal.org) or the construction of kiosks that offer Internet access in rural areas where the existence of a computer is still rare.
In order to understand how they work, a particularly illustrative activity is Chanderiyaan – Chanderi Weavers ICT Resource Center. It ‘s the Chanderi project; Chanderi is a famous place known for its historic production of traditional fabrics, which struggled to maintain its role and to emerge in the national and international economic environment. The project can be directly related to the promotion of knowledges that are updated and inserted into a production network.
Heritage, art, culture and technology are the highlights of the Def India project which in one year created a model initiative where 250 weavers have learned to draw traditional patterns with computers and then translated them into products marketable worldwide through the Internet. The activity was held in an old building in the city in order to witness the bond between old and new.
Osama Manzar is strongly convinced that the Chanderiyaan project is creating an important precedent in the fusion between history, culture and technology, art, ancient techniques in order to safeguard the artistic and technical skills of the weavers and at the same time allow them to overcome the current economic crisis and poverty.
In the city they produce famous fabrics for clothes and sarees which are sold throughout the world for a sum of one million euro. Despite these amounts, the families of the weavers earn a salary of around twenty Euros per month and live in poverty. The economic benefits are managed mostly by traders. Def India has explored this scenario, the Ministry for Communication and IT requested the organization to do it; Def India explored the opportunity to integrate the ancient techniques and information technology to improve the living conditions of the families of the weavers.
In a year of structured work exploring one entire phase of a cycle of production of fabric and clothing until the sale, the organization was able to intervene in the following areas:
1. Fabric Design Database: To provide awareness of the different fabric processing techniques they have created a digital database consisting of more than 200 models and 300 new patterns created on purpose. They initially carried out training courses for about twenty people who then trained other weavers to consult of the archive to create new models;
2. Development of computer skills: more than 500 young people attended a course of basic training in ICT (office documentation, text writing , use of a scanner, printer, digital photography etc.).
3. English course: to improve the communication skills of textile workers a course which was attended by over 500 young people was realized. Mainly girls attended it. These people are going to perform the duties connected with office work and sales;
4. Embroidery Skills Development: design skills have been translated through the use of JACarDraw Design software, through which drawings made by hand are digitilized;
5. Block Printing Center: the Chanderiyaan project introduced the printing of fabrics which had previously never been practiced in order to offer more and new products and new choices within the market;
6. Apparel Designing (cutting and sewing center): One of the weaknesses of the production of fabrics in Chandery was due to the lack of expertise in the finishing of cloth; this gap did not allow the weavers to produce finished products. Now the apprenticeship in cutting and sewing gives the weavers the opportunity to follow the full cycle of the product and offer it to the contemporary market;
7. Loom for PoP (poorest of the Poor) Weavers: 100 new frames have been made to be given to the poorest textile workers who were previously forced to rent them to work; their expenses used to eat into their already limited economic resources;
8. Chanderiyaan e-Commerce Portal: the Chanderiyaan project launched the website of online sales which is managed directly by the families of weavers who will thus be able to sell the textile products made by artisans directly to the rest of the world (http://chanderiyaan. chanderi.org /);
9. Formation of a group of self-help: one of the most important operations carried out by Def India is the establishment of thirty self-help groups for various activities related to the product cycle in order to create greater awareness, initiative and a lasting sustainability of the project itself;
10. RajaMahal Chanderiyaan: one of the most significant and representative monument of the city of Chandery, the RajaMahal, a building recently included by INTACH in the list of places of cultural heritage to be protected was the place where all the initiatives and interventions of empowerment took place. It became the heart of the project activities and at the same time a showcase where ancient knowledge and techniques, modern technologies and architectural heritage are fused togheter.
The initiative was very successful both for the enthusiasm and the strong participation of the community but especially for the resonance it had. It represents the first experimental model to be disseminated at a national level in collaboration with the Ministry for Small and Medium Enterprises and the Ministry for Rural Development. Right now the biggest challenge is to ensure that the Chanderiyaan project receives enough orders to exist independently thanks to the activities of the community involved.